I am in a long-term relationship with superheroes. Some of my earliest memories are of watching my brother play all his SEGA games, not least of which was Spider-Man.
This early indoctrination did little to affect my Barbie showdowns across the hall (actually, what do I know - maybe they all beat up villains, flying from rooftop to rooftop) but it gave me a familiarity with the character of Spidey, and, most memorably for me, his fight against his darker self: Venom.
I couldn’t even tell you which games we had. The specifics are never important in regards to early memories. It matters though that I knew who Spider-Man was and that my brother and I could take on his abilities when we picked up the controllers.
When my family moved back from the UK in 2001, we came home to a changing United States. After 9/11, there was hardly a television to be found that wasn’t broadcasting the news at all hours. Our overly-emotional teacher had gathered us around her and explained what happened. My very first fear was that my brother would be drafted soon and be shipped away.
The fear and sadness our nation felt quickly turned to rage. Rage against the “Other”, against our government, against our neighbors who wouldn’t agree with us, rage against the universe. Sometimes I wonder who really won the War on Terror; it seems that those attacks have led to a great rift in our country, a rift that causes distrust toward all - the self-destruction of the United States.
Who do you blame? Who do you hate? What do you do? When all of the enemies exist on the TV screen how do you take them down?
Heroes play a powerful role in the human psyche. We have told stories of heroes since our earliest days. I can imagine my ancestors sat around the fires at night trading their stories of shape-shifting men and women, light bringers and destroyers, respect and blind hatred. Is it so different to stare into the shifting, mesmerizing lights of the silver screen than the flames?
In 2002 Marvel and Columbia Pictures released Spider-Man. Though a lot of fans like to criticize Maguire’s Peter Parker, for me he was the perfect answer to the storm: a quite, sensitive young person on the edge of adulthood - he loved to learn, he loved his family, he made mistakes, and he emotionally, physically, and mentally paid for them.
Peter Parker pushed people away to save them, only to realize he had not only hurt them, but himself as well. He couldn’t maintain his powers without the love of his kid neighbor who believed in him, his aunt who forgave and accepted him, and his love who understood him.
Spider-Man existed in a world of confusion. Dafoe’s Green Goblin was magnificent - a caring and loving parent who struggled to show that affection to his son, tormented by his need for control, and power, blinded by ambition: the split personality of the CEO. A true American villain.
The real winner for me, though, was Iron Man (2008). Tony Stark (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) was a real piece of work. He represented all of the American ideals: arrogance misconstrued as confidence, selfishness portrayed as intelligence, and corporate moral-less wealth masquerading as benevolence.
But Stark is captured by terrorists, and his arrogance is destroyed when he realizes that his own company has provided the weaponry that the enemies are using. His selfishness is destroyed as the doctor who saved Stark’s life gives his own to ensure Stark prevails. Tony Stark sees chivalry, he sees dignity, kindness, and he understands shame.
He uses his anger to return from the Middle East and put matters right with his company in the middle of Los Angeles itself - the center of the American juxtaposition of luxury and poverty. But he comes home to realize the true enemy, the actual villain was not those who had captured and detained him, but Obedia (Jeff Bridges) whose greed and jealousy have turned him into a malicious monster, bent on his war profiteering.
These early superhero movies touched on deep anxieties and underlying currents. What do the mass-produced films touch on now? Have these franchises, seeing the popularity of these films, become their own villains - selling out their ideals and heroism for profiteering?
In 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche published his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, birthing his idea of the Übermensch (click to read more, but I will refrain from going into detail about this character at this time). It was explained [read: dictated] to a philosophy class I took that despite Übermensch’s literal translation into Superman, that the two were completely unrelated. Yet, somehow, it was only through that discussion that I was able to come to my conclusions about why I have felt let down by superhero films of late.
Spider-Man and Iron Man were naive. They thought they were in control, invincible, and superior for all their self-righteousness. It would be nice to see our heroes tackle these more difficult, more real issues again. Sure, Stark’s Frankenstein-like creation of an internet monster, Ultron, seems relevant, but he merely had to create a newer version to terminate the tainted Ultron instead of facing the darkness within himself which led to the creation of the monster to begin with.
Much like how if the industry simply continues to output new movies, they won’t have to face their idiotic mistakes in previous ones.
Please, Stan Lee, bring back the greatness.